Tips for Scouting a High School Trip Abroad

Every year Atlas Workshops leads trips to new countries and cities, so it should come as no surprise that I have spent a lot of time scouting for school travel programs and group trips. I get asked all the time by partner schools if I have any tips for when they are developing a new global program and taking their own scouting trip.

As I’m gearing up for a month of scouting this fall (to some new spots and some old favorites), I thought that now is a perfect time to share some of our tips for scouting.

Setting Your Trip (and scouting) Goals:

When I am scouting, I’m of course looking for interesting people, great food, safe hotels...but also I’m looking for the right vibe, energy and atmosphere. Are these places and people we can learn a lot from? What can we learn here that we can’t learn as well anywhere else in the world? I want to find places and stops that we can dig into. To me, this is place-based learning at its best.

For high school travel programs, this approach is in line with our standard goal of creating trips that students wouldn’t and couldn’t do without their schools.

You need to think about the goals of your program, and translate that into the scouting needs of the trip. Importantly, as you pace your scouting trip, keep these goals in mind. Your group is likely only going to stay in one hotel per city, so visiting 10 in a day might not be a great use of your limited scouting time. On the other hand if the first 9 hotels are unacceptable, then you won’t regret the 10th. Do your research and balance your schedule.

Make a Map

Geography is your greatest ally on any trip, scouting or otherwise. If you are spending most of your trip in a vehicle commuting, you probably aren’t doing it right. You want to find places that are convenient and interesting, and decide what is worth moving around for. 

For accomodations especially: location, location, location.

Personally, I keep a google map and save all of the places I want to visit whenever I hear about them. Atlas Workshops actually keeps a team version of this map, our internal database of all the places we love (and some to avoid) with notes from our team and previous experiences there.

Spread a wide net

Even before I leave, I start reaching out to LOTS of people. Atlas Workshops has a large network of friends and organizations and so for us we have an obvious starting place. We generally avoid trip advisor in major cities at this phase (though we will use it to narrow our list later on) as TA hones in on the accessible experiences which in the end, might not resonate with our students or align with our goals.

Talk about the destination to everyone, because you never know who might have some ideas for you. If you are a school, you also have lots of unique networks (alumni, your board, parents) you can plug into.

Planning the Planning Trip

I’m sure you already have a long list of stops you want to take your students too. Now, narrow the list. For a first time trip, you should have as few definitely places as possible (the once that you can’t cut from the itinerary). It’s rare that any single stop will make or break the trip. If the trip design totally hinges upon a single can’t-miss museum or one meeting, then you might have some work to do on the trip mission. Obviously there are once-in-a-lifetime moments on every trip, but you can also have a great trip without them, or if they get cancelled last minute.

Spend hours online trying to suss out the places that you must visit. Also be open-minded, as the places you won’t find anything about online are likely the ones that can make the trip.

For the scouting trip you need to see a lot more than the group will and you have limited time (and budget). You have to be thoughtful about where you are going. You should get to every city on the group’s list, and budget the right amount of time based on the goals of the eventual program.

On a short scouting trip, you might not have the time to visit all the small towns and stops you might want to. If you can’t take that long drive or extra day trip to that side village to decide if its a good fit/safe etc. then unfortunately, it might not make the trip. Who can you ask to decide if a place is likely to make the final itinerary, and thus worth the scouting effort?

When you set down to plan your scouting trip, I suggest a balance of detailed planning (checklist travel) and flexibility. Meetings will get moved around, you will stumble upon a new neighborhood you want to explore, you will have a long conversation with someone you just met who turns out to be a professor in the subject of your trip. . .

Go somewhere weird

Especially on a scouting trip, but ideally with students too, go somewhere different. Either in a city or as one of your stops, go somewhere that’s not on the normal path. Use your wide net to find the unusual places.

We find that trips to places that don’t have a long list of can’t miss spots, allow for deeper learning. We love taking students to visit cities (or countries) they hadn’t heard much about until they started preparing for their trip. This approach can be a bit of a hard sell for students and parents, so it’s not the right fit for everyone, but we have found that those are the places we end up with the best experiences and outcomes. Who wants to visit Skopje, in the Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia with us soon?

Your time is precious

Pacing your scouting trip is probably the hardest part. These days I find I can cover as much ground in three days as it might take a school to visit in over a week. I’ve honed my travel skills and my scouting skills.

For some trips I’m going to plan some crazy days. I’ve been on scouting trips that covered 3 cities and 4 towns, across two countries in a day. In that time I visited a handful of hotels, went on a short guided walk, had 5 “half-meals” and decided that we would not be going to most of those stops. On another trip I’ve spent every morning on the subway in Athens visiting different hotels and apartments we might use for groups.

Be clear about how many places you can cover in a day or a week based on your own comfort in that country or region of the world. Also scouting in some places looks really different than in others (and will also shape the trip in a similar way too). Do you need a rental car? Can you affordably hire a driver? Is public transit the most efficient choice? Are you spending a lot of time exploring neighborhoods or more time fleshing out program details with a single local partner?

Meet the right people

People define the place. You might find somewhere “perfect” online and then it turns out that no one is there, or the staff can’t say much about it, or it’s boring, or its jam packed with people. . . Another version of that “weird” place, is just an “average” place where the right people and the right connections make it spectacular. 

For some topics, you can explore them in a lot of places, so you don’t have to pick the first one that comes to mind. You can study mobile money by interviewing people in almost any village in Kenya. You can talk to locals about greek life on any island in Greece. So pick the village or the island that has the right balance of charm and importantly where you have the right connections. 

Once on the trip, schedule a few meetings to meet the right people in person. Some meetings are going to be just as successful on the phone, so remember that your time in country is precious. Spend time filtering out the people who will add the most value to your program. 

Scout Fast Enough

You will definately be scrambling a bit. You probably can’t study every room of every museum. You might pop your head into a hotel lobby, see the rowdy bar, and not bother to go up to see a room. You might stop by five restaurants before you realize that you haven’t even had your own lunch.

On the other hand, lots of the best moments of a trip come from the unplanned things you stumble upon. Flexibility is great on a scouting trip and on a student trip. I’ve spent hours in a cafe processing my morning, I’ve met up with friends for an afternoon coffee that turned into a five hour dinner. These moments can really deepen your perspective of a place and help you to conceptualize the whole trip better.

On a student trip, we want to be agile such that we can have some spontaneity without adding huge risks. The reality is that some activities will never be added last minute (I heard about an amazing beach with 50 meter cliff diving), but others will (there is a new pop-up art exhibit around the corner).

On the scouting side of the equation though this means a lot of scouting to places that in the end your group will likely not ever visit. But you will get a deeper understanding, more focused itineraries, and especially some back-up plans.

Think Through Details

A big part of the scouting trip is in the details. You should make a list of details you need to figure out that are going to be a lot easier in person than on the road. Make a list of questions you want to answer during your trip. Some less obvious questions we like to investigate include:

  • What is a good budget for a meal?

  • What are good streets to walk on? Any shortcuts?

  • Is the subway more crowded at certain times of day?

  • Do the hotels become clubs in the evening?

  • Will students feel comfortable in this neighborhood?

Take Lots of Photos and Notes

This is probably obvious. We especially like using your camera phone to take photos of everything we can: menus, hotel rooms, flyers, business cards. This strategy saves time in the field, but does require some time processing on the flight home.

Get Some Help

Last year I traveled to over 40 different countries, and while most of those trips weren’t exclusively for scouting, I’m now always in scouting mode.

Scouting trips to develop a high school program can be a lot of fun, but it is also a lot of work. It shouldn’t be intimidating, but you also shouldn’t underestimate how much strategy and planning should go into it. There are the obvious tasks (hotel visits), the fun parts you are excited about (olive oil tasting), the rapid sightseeing (museum sprint). But the biggest challenge is still getting past the surface of a place and seeing the larger program through the details. Why is the trip happening, and what are the stops to accomplish these goals, while everyone stays safe, well-rested, challenged, happy and well-fed? Here is where Atlas Workshop can come in too.

Scouting and Travelling with Atlas Workshops

We are happy to help you brainstorm your scouting trip, share some tips and people from around the world, and think about how you will get from scouting to the final program...or we can even come along with you. 

Another option: check out our custom professional development programs -- which can include scouting planning help or workshops on campus or in the field, or join one of our open scouting trips or open educator programs.

Of course one of the benefits of running a program with a professional partner like Atlas Workshops is that our experience and vision means we can adapt a current program and our network to fit your needs or scout something new. We also have the benefit of sharing scouting costs across trips and partners, which means that we can develop new programs quickly and affordably. We can also collaborate in scouting. We can help plan the scouting trip or review the stops, we can take care of logistics for the final trip, so you can test them out while scouting. Essentially a partner can help you focus more on the learning outcomes and style of the trip, and not get bogged down in the nitty gritty. 

Are you thinking of planning a new trip? When’s your scouting trip and how can we help?

Adam White